Posts filed under 'Scandal'

2013: Li Xingpong, party official

Add comment June 19th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2013, Li Xingpong, the former deputy Communist Party chief of Yongcheng city, Henan, was executed for a spree of child rapes.

He reportedly exploited his position to take advantage of a number of schoolgirls, and exploited his position to cover it up — growing so bold that he was finally arrested in May 2012 in flagrante delicto in front of a middle school. His hard drive yielded graphic firsthand records of his conquests.

Public fury predictably ensued, at least as measured by the online response. “Yet another great example of a party cadre,” cracked one wag on Weibo.

The execution certainly suited the anti-corruption line set by then-new President Xi Jinping, not to mention an announced commitment by the judiciary to chastise offenders against children.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal

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1230: William de Braose, bold paramour

Add comment May 2nd, 2019 Headsman

In this year William de Breos the Younger, lord of Brycheiniog, was hanged by the Lord Llywelyn in Gwynedd, after he had been caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the king of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife.

-Chronicle of Ystrad Fflur

The Welsh king Llywelyn the Great had William de Braose hanged on this date in 1230 near Bala for — well, the aforesaid.

The lords of his Norman house patrolled the Welsh marches, and our man — Gwilym Ddu (“Black William”) to the Welsh — was Llywelyn’s prisoner from 1228 via capture in some skirmish. All in a day’s work for the feudal nobility, for whom “captivity” meant honored hospitality while waiting around for their relatives to raise the ransom for their relief.

Black William made time in more ways during this spell, not only seducing Llewelyn’s wife Joan, Lady of Wales, but playing matchmaker between Llywelyn’s son and his, da Braose’s, daughter. This marriage still went off notwithstanding Llywelyn’s discovery that his own had been violated, something the Welsh prince allegedly found out by walking in on the two in the middle of the night, when an already-ransomed Black William had gone back to pay an Easter visit to his future in-laws.

In the record of the Abbott of Vaudey, “On 2nd of May, at a certain manor called ‘Crokein’, he was made ‘Crogyn’, i.e. hanged on a tree, and this not privily or in the night time, but openly and in the broad daylight, in the presence of more than 800 men assembled to behold the piteous and melancholy spectacle.”

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Wales

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1391: Agnese Visconti and Antonio da Scandiano, adulterous lovers?

Add comment February 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1391, the condottiero tyrant of Mantua, Francisco Gonzaga, removed his consort from his right arm by removing her head.

Daughter of the powerful Milanese Visconti family, Agnese Visconti had been dynastically married off to the Mantuan prince by her father. Dad had in 1385 been overthrown and murdered by a kinsman, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, but still this was all in the family: the thing was that Francisco Gonzaga started wanting to cut ties with that family.

No trouble: Francisco simply accused his wife of adultery with a knight,* Antonio da Scandiano, and had both put to death on February 7, 1391 — Agnese via the blade, Antonio at the end of a rope. Then, Francisco switched its allegiance from #TeamMilan to #TeamVenice in the peninsular geopolitics scrum.**

European courts were aghast as news of the divorce proceedings reached her preening chateaux, but “nimble, opportunistic changes of political loyalty like these were typical of Gonzaga foreign policy and helped them to navigate their small state safely in a sea of unpredictable alliances.” (Source)

Consummate survivors, the House of Gonzaga weathered the Visconti wrath and ruled Mantua into the 18th century, producing among other things down the centuries a name check in Hamlet and a pious Jesuit who became namesake to the many educational institutions called “Gonzaga”.

* The headsman is not so cold to the sentiments of the heart that he excludes the possibility of an actual dalliance. Consider him agnostic, beneath his dark cowl.

** Gian Galeazzo Visconti did right by his cousin by assailing Mantua in revenge, leading Gonzaga to throw up the gorgeous Castello di San Giorgio. This fortress was later used as a prison, and in its day has held some figures destined for Executed Today‘s pages, such as Andreas Hofer and the Belfiore martyrs.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Women

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1913: Captain Manuel Sanchez Lopez

Add comment November 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1913, Spanish Captain Manuel Sanchez Lopez was shot for a scandalous affair of incest and murder.

You’ll need Spanish for most sources on this tawdry tale. Our principal was a vicious lowlife of long repute, having driven his wife away by dint of his ungovernable affection for cheap brothels, gambling dens, and drunken brawls.

His oldest daughter, María Luisa Sanchez Noguerol, would be his semi-willing accomplice in the crime that ended Captain Sanchez’s life, but she had for many years before that been his victim: not only of the blows the father meted out to all his children, but also to his sexual attentions.

Captain Sanchez forced this daughter into prostitution to support his own degeneracy but he had a larger score in mind when he encouraged her to accept an assignation with a wealthy widower, Rodrigo Garcia Jalon. At this rendezvous, the father — who probably would have been better advised to content himself with the rents of blackmail or robbery — sprang from concealment and fatally bludgeoned the gentleman with a hammer.

Father and daughter desperately dismembered the body in hopes of concealing the crime but another of Manuel Sanchez’s oft-thrashed children denounced them to the police, to the very great delight of scandal-mongering newspapers throughout Europe. Everything was rumored: that the father had once or twice impregnated his own progeny, that they had pulled the seduction/murder trick several times before.


The discovery of the victim’s remains.

The father had the privilege of shooting instead of a garrote, thanks to his military rank. The daughter did share his fate, but received a long prison sentence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Pelf,Scandal,Sex,Shot,Soldiers,Spain

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Julius Caesar’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Scandal,Sex,Uncertain Dates

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1679: La Bosse, Poison Affair culprit

1 comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the French soothsayer Marie Bosse went to the stake as France dealt out death for the Affair of the Poisons.

After the disgrace and 1676 execution of that aristocrat Locusta, the Madame de Brinvilliers, Louis XIV set his pathbreaking police chief on the trail of the “divineresses” whose potions were sought and feared as the remedy to every domestic ill.

Over six-odd years some 36 souls would succumb to this investigation, 34 upon the scaffold and two tortured to death in prison. Perhaps the best-known of these was a woman named La Voisin, whom we have met in these grim pages before. Our subject today is the woman who named La Voisin to her prosecutors.

Too deep in her cups at a Christmas 1678 party — a time at which the few arrests of alchemists and folk magicians could not yet really be said to be a Poison Affair — our principal La Bosse dropped some indiscreet braggadocio as to her prowess and market share in the poisoning game.

When word got back to the torchlit cowls at the Chambre Ardente, she’d be arrested and interrogated to great profit for investigators. La Bosse blabbed all about other poisoners, including the king’s own lover, the Madame de Montespan and the aforementioned La Voisin.

This was fatal to La Bosse as well as to La Voisin but proved less so to highest muckity-mucks. Accusations reaching the king’s own bedchamber and perhaps even compassing contemplated regicide were thought dangerous to explore and helped to drop the curtain on the entire poison-hunt: “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard,” in the supposed words of the investigator.

Later in 1679, a Thomas CorneilleJean Donneau de Vise comedy ridiculing poisoners and pretended magicians debuted. La Divineresse, whose title character was named “Jobin” and had an associate named “Du Clos”, was a smash hit, running for several months — which was more than could be said by that time for these characters’ real-life inspirations. (La Voisin went to the stake in February 1680.)

Recommended: an eight-part blog series on Poison at the Court of Louis XIV begins here; scroll down to advance installment by installment.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Women

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1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Broken on the Wheel,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Fictional,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal

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326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2010: Wen Qiang, prey of Bo Xilai

Add comment July 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Chongqing politician Wen Qiang was executed for corruption — but the rival who felled him was on the brink of his own destruction.

Wen, the longtime Public Security Bureau chief in the southwestern city of Chongking, was a big dog to most. To Bo Xilai, Wen looked more like trophy game.

Son of an “immortal” Communist pol Bo Yibo, the aggressive and charismatic Politburo member Bo was then an ascending star on the national stage.

In 2007, Bo won the Communist Party’s appointment as party chief of Chongqing — effectively giving him control of the city. From this platform, Bo launched a high-profile crackdown on graft and organized crime rife in the 30 million-strong megacity.

During a campaign from roughly 2009 to Bo’s own fall in 2012, some 9,000 people were investigated for corruption, and nearly half of them jailed … or in Wen’s case, worse.

“Dare to fight against the devil, never compromise with the gangs”: Bo’s act resonated powerfully in a country fractured by economic development and widely afflicted by beak-wetting. But Bo’s political angle was not merely playing to the peanut gallery: it was also a factional power play, implicitly critical of his similarly powerful predecessor Wang Yang for having tolerated the mobsters’ rise.

And Wen Qiang, a holdover from even before the Wang years, was Bo’s highest-ranking prey.

Xinhua reported that he was found guilty of soliciting USD $1.7 million worth of bribes, of protecting criminals like his sister-in-law who happened to be the “godmother” of crime in Chongqing, and even of raping a university student. Media circulated salacious stories of buried sacks of cash, mistresses collected and discarded, and secret luxury villas.

In these years, Bo went from victory to vctory and destroying Wen was just another stepping-stone towards the top leadership circles in the People’s Republic.

But merely 16 months after Wen faced his executioner, Bo’s own star also dramatically fell to earth.

In November 2011, British businessman and Bo associate Neil Haywood was found suspiciously poisoned in his Chongqing hotel. Practically overnight, Bo Xilai found himself the target instead of the author of the investigation — politically stricken as all his own chickens came home to roost.

An incredible sequence of events ensued: Bo’s chief of police (and Wen’s own Javert) Wang Lijun bizarrely fled to the (temporary) sanctuary of an American consulate the following February, days after Bo demoted him — apparently citing fear that Bo might have him, too, murdered.

Within weeks, Bo had been sacked as Chongqing party boss and dismissed from the Politburo while his wife Gu Kailai arrested for Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang was arrested when he left the American consulate. Politically impotent now, Bo had months to wait before his own divisive case finally came to a courtroom resolution in 2013. As of this writing, Wang and Bo and Gu are all serving long prison sentences. (Gu’s was a suspended death sentence recently commuted to life imprisonment.)

Through Bo’s precipitous fall, Bo’s own patron Zhou Yongkang was also ruined, forced out of national leadership, and eventually sent to prison on corruption charges of his own.

Bo’s disgrace has brought a re-examination of his rough rule in Chongqing — though many targets of his bygone anti-corruption drive still languish in prison, vainly protesting their innocence.

Though he is no longer around to protest on his own behalf, and there appears to be little sentiment that he was clear of corruption in an absolute sense, Wen has also been re-evaluated in light of those events — including indications that the most incendiary allegations against him might have been ginned up for show:

police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.

Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen — two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned — has also been questioned.

A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for “anti-graft education” tours.

The (possibly apocryphal) story has it than in a prison meeting, the doomed Wen prophesied Danton-like to his persecutor Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”

There are affecting interviews with Wen’s wife and son, and even a reporter’s conversation with Wen during the very last hours of his life, all here.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Pelf,Politicians,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,The Worm Turns

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